Veterans Day is a time to thank past and present members of the U.S. military for their service. For more than two centuries, Americans in uniform have played an immense role in defining our great nation and the entire modern free world.
Throughout that history, the families of service members have played their own part as well.
It isn’t easy to be a military family, relocating often and enduring long separations. Military dependents are not soldiers, but they never quite feel like civilians either. In sharing the sacrifices service members make, military dependents become a vital part of the support structure for the armed forces.
Military families bear many of the same risks and hardships as service members — including the burden of asbestos exposure.
Many service members survive their active duty careers only to be taken from their families later by service-related cancer. Additionally, military occupations that exposed service members to high levels of asbestos dust also endangered military dependents through secondhand exposure.
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) recognizes the hardships military families endure by extending certain benefits to eligible family members of veterans.
Our nation’s veterans agreed to face many dangers as part of their service, but the risk of developing a debilitating asbestos-related disease was never something they signed up for.
Unfortunately, the U.S. military was a top consumer of asbestos-containing products from the 1930s through the 1970s — long after military leaders and industrial suppliers knew of the associated health risks.
Today, although veterans make up only 8 percent of the U.S. population, they account for about 30 percent of American deaths related to mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused almost exclusively by asbestos exposure.
Asbestos-related diseases afflict thousands of veterans in the U.S., taking a devastating toll on military families.
However, military dependents don’t only have a higher risk of losing someone to an asbestos-related disease — they carry a higher risk of dying from these diseases themselves.
Secondhand asbestos exposure occurs when a worker comes home with asbestos dust contaminating their clothes, skin and hair. The worker’s family members may inhale or swallow the dust when giving the worker a hug or washing their work clothes.
There are many safety regulations to prevent workplace asbestos contamination in the U.S. today, but before the 1970s, workers were told asbestos dust was perfectly harmless.
Some of the most toxic working conditions occurred in military jobs that involved installing, repairing and removing asbestos-containing insulation on U.S. Navy ships. After a busy day of mixing asbestos cement for a boiler room or cutting old asbestos lagging off pipes, a sailor in the 1960s could return home to his wife and children covered in toxic asbestos fibers.
Asbestos-related diseases take many years to develop, so symptoms typically do not arise until long after a service member has retired from the military.
Since the 1970s, the U.S. military has completely reversed its policy on asbestos use, and the VA offers a number of benefits to veterans suffering from asbestos-related diseases.
Veterans can seek treatment from top cancer specialists through the VA health care system. When an illness can be traced back to asbestos exposure during military service, veterans are entitled to Disability Compensation.
The VA also offers certain benefits for family members of veterans.
When a veteran dies of a service-related disability, certain family members can apply to receive monthly compensation from the VA. Eligible family members include surviving spouses, parents who were financially dependent on the veteran and children who are minors, disabled or under 24 and still in school.
As with VA Disability Compensation, the veteran’s illness must be traced back to military asbestos exposure for it to qualify as a service-related cause of death.
A&A is sometimes also called an “improved pension.” When wartime veterans with limited income need help with daily living activities because of age or illness, they can apply for an increased monthly pension amount to help cover the cost of assisted-living services.
The disability does not have to be service-related, and the assistance can be provided by professionals or relatives acting as caretakers. This benefit also is available to surviving spouses of wartime veterans.
When a veteran dies, they can be buried in a national cemetery at no cost to their family, and their dependents can be buried in the same plot.
An allowance is available to help cover the cost of a plot in a private cemetery. In addition, some veterans are eligible for allowances that help their families pay for funeral and transportation costs.
VA benefits are complicated, involving elaborate eligibility requirements, payment schedules and documentation to send back and forth for approval.
Some benefits add onto each other, such as Disability Compensation and Special Monthly Compensation, whereas other benefits exclude each other, such as DIC and A&A.
Documenting an asbestos exposure that occurred decades ago is another daunting task, especially when a veteran went on to have a civilian career that also potentially involved asbestos exposure.
Fortunately, the VA created an accreditation process to ensure Veterans Service Officers and VA-accredited Claims Agents are qualified to provide veterans and their families with the specialized assistance they deserve.
Military families affected by asbestos exposure have the right to apply for VA benefits on their own, but they should not hesitate to seek assistance with filing a VA claim if they need it.